Image by Lisa Bunchofpants

Solving Native Advertising’s Goldilocks Problem

Many marketers believe the next generation of advertising has arrived. Native advertising—ads that are ‘native to the experience’ of the platform or service that is being used, be it video, text, image or audio—is ascendant. It’s proliferating throughout the social web. The idea is that the advertising should actually contribute to the user experience, rather than detracting from it.

Or at least that’s the intention. But native advertising has a so-called “Goldilocks Problem.” If native advertising is too prominent, it’s no different from traditional advertising, taking the user’s attention away from the content they really want. If it’s too subtle, it doesn’t work. Businesses and the social networks themselves often struggle to get it “just right.”

Too Much?

Want a video to start playing automatically in the newsfeed of your target audience? No problem; Facebook can sell you that space. Want to be able to tailor your advertising to a user’s recent browsing history, and for your ad to appear within the Twitter timeline? Sure. With promoted posts, video ads and self-service advertising programs like Foursquare’s, it seems that the sky’s the limit when it comes to the spaces in which companies can now reach out to their audience.

But how have audiences reacted? Let’s start with the behemoth: Facebook. They’ve been gradually upping the advertising ante for a couple of years, with ‘suggested posts’, promoted posts that automatically appear in your News Feed after you ‘like’ a page, and now ‘Premium’ video ads that automatically start playing when they appear on screen.

The reaction to videos popping up and playing themselves hasn’t been favorable. Research undertaken by marketing consultant Analytic Partners tells us that 83% of surveyed Facebook users said that they would find Facebook’s video ads “intrusive” and would probably ignore them.

That’s not to say that video ads are always poorly received, however. Instagram began rolling out ads at around the same time as its parent company, Facebook. They wanted to be able to allow users the option to hide and provide feedback about ad—a tactic that has turned out to be a pretty good compromise for both sides. Levi’s and Ben and Jerry’s experienced increases in ad recall and brand awareness with Instagram advertising.

Too Little?

Twitter provides native ads in the form of their “tailored audiences” strategy: advertising that uses data from browser histories to show users ads that directly relate to sites they’ve recently visited. Since they take up such a tiny amount of real estate on the homepage, users haven’t had as much of a problem with these as the Facebook videos.

However, being perhaps a bit too subtle backfired on Pinterest. In 2012, Pinterest users were dismayed at what they perceived to be the network’s shady attempt at advertising, by appending affiliate links to pins. But the site tried its hand at ads again, this time more openly, when it announced Promoted Pins in September 2013.

The ads appear in related search results and category feeds, not home feeds. And they’re clearly tagged with “Promoted Pin,” plus a button to learn more about the advertiser. Pinterest promised in its announcements that ads would be tasteful, transparent and relevant to users’ interests.

Just Right

Done well, native advertising can be much more effective than traditional advertising. The trick is to add value for the user. It’s simply not enough now to shove an untargeted banner ad down the length of a webpage anymore. If advertising isn’t a seamlessly integrated part of the audience’s social media experience, it’s ignored. Or worse.

On Friday, Twitter announced the addition of a new option for advertisers, which they’re calling “website cards.” The ads feature a “preview” of the website or blog post the Tweet links to. We know Tweets with images are much more likely to be clicked, but does that principle extend to ads? Or will the extra feed real estate the cards take up make them too intrusive? Time and data will tell.

Marketers are still trying to figure out the perfect balance between native ads that are too intrusive and ads that are so subtle the user doesn’t notice that the brand. Data provides an element of science in solving the goldilocks problem, but there’s an art to it, too. Relevance requires creativity and intuition, not just an algorithm. As the major social networks experiment with new ways to monetize, and brands increasingly seek mind share on social media, more examples of what works will surface. It won’t be long before someone gets it just right.